Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s (fourth) government made its worst-ever decision: To nix the core curriculum requirement in haredi elementary schools.
This is a tragic mistake that penalizes all Israelis, including haredim. It threatens the significant progress made in recent years toward greater integration of the ultra-Orthodox in higher education and the modern Israeli workforce. Such integration is critical to the Israeli economy and to the health of haredi society itself.
The government’s excuse for this egregious error? Well, it’s part of the coalition agreement with haredi parties; and “coercion” in education, it is argued, is counterproductive.
I beg to disagree.
To begin with, one must understand the enormousness of the problem. More than 400,000 students are in ultra-Orthodox educational networks, including more than one-third of all elementary schoolchildren in Israel.
Haredi high schools have been and remain exempt from teaching any “core curriculum” – subjects such as languages, literature, mathematics, nature and science and technology. These yeshivas receive full state funding, regardless.
As for haredi elementary schools: Former education minister Shai Piron and former finance minister Yair Lapid initiated a law that prorated state funding to the degree that haredi schools taught math, science and English.
Schools that taught students 100 percent of the core curriculum were to get full funding; schools defined as “recognized but unofficial” (which are primarily, but not exclusively, haredi) were to teach 75% of the core curriculum and get 75% funding; while “exempt” schools (which are exclusively haredi) would teach 55% of the core curriculum and be funded accordingly.
But before this law was scheduled to take effect it was canceled altogether. The Education Ministry never carefully monitored whether haredi schools were meeting their core curriculum obligations, and the schools were funded regardless of the scope of their core studies.
The result: Haredim are the only segment of the Israeli population – perhaps even the developed world – that has become less educated with each generation. A Taub Center study shows that over the last 30 years, educational levels reached by haredim have been halved. Today, 90% of haredi youngsters do not matriculate from high school.
Only 15% of haredim over 45 years of age have a college degree; among haredim below 45, the rate is only half of that. And 60% of haredim are under 20! The problem is two-fold: First, basic proficiency in “secular” studies is part of being an educated person with a critical mind, and having a mental window open to knowledge in the broadest sense.
(Alas, that is why some haredim oppose secular studies of any quotient).
Second, there is no way that the haredi community can pull itself out of its crippling poverty (60% live under the poverty line!) and contribute to the Israeli hi-tech-based economy without education that goes beyond Talmud.
Faced with these realities, haredi educators argue that “Talmud sharpens the mind,” and that haredim easily can make up 12 years of education in six months of a preparatory program – when Haredim hit age 30 and are ready to leave kollel and try to study for a profession.
But this is simply not true! The statistics do not support such exaggerated self-esteem.
Studies published recently by the Council of Higher Education show that a whopping 50% of haredi men drop out of their college studies. Late in life, as adults, they just can’t hack the studies, especially the study of English. Among haredi women (who are exposed to some general studies in their high school years), the dropout rate is 30%.
These dropout rates are particularly scary, because the council has poured hundreds of millions of shekels into haredi professional training programs at Israeli colleges and universities, including generous scholarships and stipends for the students plus infrastructure grants for the schools. Moreover, we’re talking about haredim who have self-selected for academic studies, and who have been deemed likely to succeed by the colleges and thus were admitted. They also already have been through the academic preparatory programs specially-designed for haredim.
Furthermore, even those haredim who make it through a late-stage college degree are not competing well in the marketplace for good-paying jobs. They manage to integrate into the work force at middle level jobs at the edges of the haredi community.
Only about 1,000 haredi men and 5,000 haredi women (out of 200,000 working haredim) are employed in hi-tech, and mostly at low level jobs earning less than NIS 6,000 a month.
In other words, 30 years of narrow-exclusive Halacha and Gemara studies do not well-equip a haredi person for advanced academic study toward a productive professional life.
Thus the decision this week not to employ government purse strings as a lever to encourage basic general studies in the Haredi world is short-sided and destructive in the extreme.
The decision also runs counter to what seems to be majority sentiment within Israeli haredi society – toward embracing college study and gainful employment – and it threatens to undermine positive trends under way.
Consider: Over the past five years, the number of haredim in college has jumped by more than 80%, to over 11,000. Last year, the proportion of haredi men in the workforce hit 51%, the highest since Israel started tracking this data. And a Jerusalem Post survey found that 83% of haredi parents would like their high schools to teach secular subjects alongside religious ones.
But much of the yeshiva-based haredi leadership sees this as a threat. It seems stuck in an old world where Orthodox religious lifestyle and outlook was endangered. Therefore it is fighting a rearguard battle against openness to higher education and the very necessary integration of haredim in the modern economy. It is tragically trapping haredim in an impossible world of intellectual stricture and economic denial.
I believe that the younger haredi generation should feel less threatened and more confident of its ability to advance and lead Israeli society.
It is growing up in a very different world; a world where Torah study is flourishing, where the religious population is growing rapidly as is reverence for tradition in broader society; and where institutions from the army to universities and hi-tech companies welcome haredim with respect for their lifestyle.
I’ll go one step further: Israeli society needs haredi leadership in all aspects of modern life, and for this haredim must educate themselves.
After all, haredim have much to teach all Israelis about values – about living modestly (but not in poverty!), prioritizing spiritual aspirations, emphasizing family and community life, and eschewing the slavish devotion to stupidity (as expressed in the worlds of entertainment, fashion, and pop culture) that characterizes much of modern society.
How could the Netanyahu government punish us all with this appalling antieducational decision?!